CAM VALLEY WILDLIFE GROUP BARN OWL PROJECT – 25th ANNIVERSARY!
The project started in 1994 when Barn owls were under severe threat nationally and thought to be extinct as a breeding species in what at the time was the county of Avon. A nationwide Project Barn owl was launched and we agreed to pick it up in Cam Valley Wildlife Group area. The area covers approximately 300 sq km around Midsomer Norton, Radstock and surrounding villages in Somerset.
We immediately located one nesting pair. We also started to call on local farmers to gain agreement to erect boxes. Initially we put them in trees but that was not very successful. Boxes were rotted by the rain and pigeons and jackdaws used the boxes. We then switched the focus to barns of which we are fortunate to have lots in our area. Over the years the project has grown and we adopted a strategy of mass coverage – getting boxes in as many barns in suitable habitat areas as we could. We never expected all of them, nor even the majority, to be occupied but our intention was to maximise the nesting opportunity for Barn owls. 2018 marked something of a landmark as it has now been running for 25 years! We currently have 160 occupied & potential nest sites on our database. These consist mainly of nest boxes but also include other sites which have been occupied such as: an old grain silo, a church, an old water tower, house lofts and an old pit winding gear tower. When we find that a pair is present and breeding we then return at a later date to count the number of chicks. It can be a very onerous and time consuming exercise to visit all sites each year. It is now perhaps the right time to cut back a little, so we now intend to limit the number of sites visited each year. Priority will be given to sites which are or have been occupied in recent years. We will also vary visits to other sites from year to year and email or phone some site owners to check.
We operate very much on a least disturbance basis. This involves determining, by distant observation, which sites are occupied and looking for signs such as the pellets which are coughed up and white splashing. When a site is occupied we return to watch a few times to determine if there is a breeding pair, the male will be seen taking prey into the nest. The next visits are to listen for the sound of chicks which emit a loud “snoring” call, especially when the adults bring in food. After that we try to pay just a single visit to inspect the nest and count the number of chicks.
The chart below tracks the growth of nesting pairs found year by year since 1995. It does not reflect fully the number of nesting pairs in the area as there are bound to be at least a few undetected pairs. It does however give a good idea indication of how the population has grown since the project started. The figures for 2001 & 2006 are artificially low because outbreaks of Foot & Mouth and BSE restricted the number of farm sites we could visit. The low figure in 2013 reflects an 80% national failure rate of breeding Barn owls.
Barn owls are afforded protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act which makes it illegal to disturb them during the nesting period without a licence which we obtain from Natural England.
If you want to know more or would like to consider getting involved in the project then please contact Andre Fournier on 01761 418153
Photographs by courtesy of team member Gary Kingman